Oswald Letter

14 qualities and attributes of great leaders

Great Leadersby Dan Oswald

Marvin Bower joined McKinsey & Company in 1933 and served as the management consulting firm’s managing partner from 1950 to 1967. In 1997, he published a book titled The Will to Lead: Running a Business with a Network of Leaders, in which he shares his perspectives on leadership. One of Bower’s beliefs is that a command-and-control management structure “with each superior exercising authority over subordinates who do exactly what their boss wants” is flawed and presents numerous problems for companies. And in the book, he makes a case that this type of structure has to be replaced: “Authority should be replaced by leadership.”

But Bower doesn’t stop there. He goes on to describe in detail what he thinks makes a leader. He says, “Above all, a leader must be trusted and respected.” I couldn’t agree more. So many managers believe that their position, experience, or intelligence is enough to make them a leader. Not true. If you don’t have the trust and respect of the people around you, you can’t lead them. And it takes more than a title or IQ to gain true respect.

According to Bower, anyone who wants to lead “must develop certain qualities and attributes.” He defines qualities as a person’s character and personality, which he admits are very difficult to learn. He describes attributes as skills that can be learned. What are the qualities and attributes Bower identifies? I’ve listed them below. Some are obvious, but others might surprise you, as they did me.

Trustworthiness. Bower calls this “integrity in action.” A leader must be inherently honest to build the trust of those around her. Without trust, there is no leadership. It’s as simple as that.

Fairness. How many times have you heard about a leader who is “tough but fair”? It’s a common term. People will respect leaders who are tough on them as long as what they demand is considered fair.

Unassuming behavior. Too often, when people achieve a position of importance, they let their ego get the best of them and become arrogant. It’s difficult to be an arrogant or pretentious leader.

Listening. A strong leader is a good listener. Many managers believe that when they are put in a position of authority, they should be the one talking and giving orders. Instead, they should focus on listening even more. A manager who doesn’t listen can’t really be a leader because he won’t know what’s truly happening around him.

Open-minded. A leader doesn’t believe she has all the answers. Instead, she’s confident and secure enough to know she doesn’t and that it would be smart to listen to what others have to contribute.

Sensitivity to people. To get people to openly share with you, they must believe you care about them as individuals and about their ideas. If you can’t develop a rapport with people, you can’t lead them.

Sensitivity to situations. Bower says, “Situations are created by people and must be dealt with by people.” Often a manager is put in a position where she has to resolve disputes or disagreements. A leader can analyze the situation, consider the feelings of those involved, make a prudent decision, and communicate it effectively. It doesn’t mean everyone involved will like or agree with the decision, but if the manager can display sensitivity to the people and the situation, she’s likely to be an effective leader.

Initiative. Bower considers this an attribute, not a quality, and therefore believes it can be learned. To be a leader, a person must be willing to take action. When opportunities present themselves, a leader takes the initiative and pursues them relentlessly.

Good judgment. A leader with good judgment has the ability to consider the facts available to him and other potentially relevant information and has the intuition to combine what is known and unknown to make the best decision. It’s as much art as science, and a good leader understands he will never have all the information or perfect data and is comfortable acting with what he has.

Broad-mindedness. This manifests itself in a leader as the ability to see the big picture. A good leader doesn’t get mired in every last detail but can step back from situations to consider many alternatives. Seeing the forest for the trees is important for a leader.

Flexibility and adaptability. A true leader must be able and willing to change direction quickly or admit when she has made a mistake. A leader is open to change and can adapt easily when necessary.

Capacity to make sound and timely decisions. If there’s one thing all successful leaders share, it’s the ability to make decisions. And if a leader is to be successful, those decisions must be made after appropriate consideration. But indecisiveness kills the ability to lead.

Capacity to motivate. This one, in my mind, is broad. Many people associate the capacity to motivate with a fiery leader or an eloquent and effective speaker. And passion and strong communication certainly can aid in one’s ability to lead, but it takes more to motivate others. The courage of your convictions, a certain degree of confidence, and a shared purpose also are necessary to get others to follow you.

Sense of urgency. A good leader favors action over inaction. A good leader wants to move quickly and make things happen. Slow, reactive, passive people don’t tend to end up in leadership roles—and for good reason.

These 14 qualities and attributes outlined by Bower are a great tool for all managers to determine what type of leader they are. How many of these qualities and attributes do you possess? Better yet, how many of them would the people you manage say you demonstrate? Isn’t that the true test of a leader?

2 thoughts on “14 qualities and attributes of great leaders”

  1. I look forward to reading your articles so much. When I read the leadership articles it instills in me what I want to be. I save them all. I’m one of the unfortunate ones that works for someone who is in a huge leadership role but has none of the qualities of being a leader. It creates a department of turmoil and anquish. Your articles really stick in my head because it lets me know how things are supposed to be and if I’m ever in a leadership role your folder of articles will be under my arm as I practice what you teach. Thank you.

  2. I am a aspiring Leader who desires to motivate and strengthen upcoming leaders. I have read the 14 qualities and attributes of a great leader. I believe I have found an effective blueprint for Leadership that will help build my Leadership skills. I strongly believe that before you can Lead another you must know how to follow. Thank you

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